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Boston Tax Records: 1780-1821

Taking Books: Overview

Taking books (referred to as “valuation books” beginning in 1818) represent the first step in the tax assessment process. These are the notebooks that the assessors carried through each ward as they recorded information about individual residents and their taxable property.

Within the taking books, assessors recorded names of individual residents or businesses, taxable values of real estateopensanewwindow and personal propertyopensanewwindowpoll taxopensanewwindow status, information on the condition of domiciles, and the names of property owners. Frequently, taking books also contain additional details, such as the occupation, general economic status, ethnicity, and race of individual taxpayers. Names of streets are often, but not always recorded, though street names are present consistently beginning in 1811.

What we can learn from the order of names listed

Taking books aren’t organized by name; instead, taxpayers are listed according to the order in which the assessors visited them. If, for example, an assessor began at the west end of Elm Street (ward 4) and walked east, knocking first on doors on the north side of the street, then that is the order in which the tax-paying residents of Elm Street will be listed. If an assessor skipped certain houses or blocks and returned to them later, the order of the names listed will likely reflect as much. In many instances, then, taking books can uniquely approximate adjacencies of residents within specific Boston neighborhoods, at a level of detail not readily available in other sources.

How the taking books are organized

The image above is from the 1808 ward 10 taking book. The columns, from left to right, are labeled:

  • Names
  • Polls (i.e. poll taxes)
  • Occupation
  • Real Es. (i.e. Real Estate)
  • Pers. Es. (i.e. Personal Estate/property)
  • Owners (of the property)
  • To whom assessed
  • Remarks

The "remarks" column, though primarily empty in this example, often contains invaluable observations made by the assessors, who often note the condition of houses, race, economic status, the names of business partners, etc.

The check marks and letters in the unlabeled column on the far left are used by the assessors and clerks when putting each name in semi-alphabetical order in the transfer books. 

Common abbreviations

In addition to sometimes difficult handwriting, entries are often heavily abbreviated. For instance, under the occupation column for the first name, Saml. (i.e. Samuel) Langer, the word "Groc." is entered, meaning that Langer worked as a Grocer. Below that, John Jewett is listed as "Merch.", or merchant. The looping symbol listed in the occupation columns for many individuals stands for "ditto," meaning that the person's occupation is the same as the one above it.